Aylesbury Vale council’s IT lead Maryvonne Hassall talks to Gill Hitchcock about the potential gains – and pitfalls – of adopting AI in local government
The Amazon Alexa voice service is available on the Echo and Echo Dot devices Credit: PA
Why do little things cause big problems? For instance, two short words – ‘council’ and ‘cancel’ – have brought major headaches for voice-activated artificial intelligence developers at Aylesbury Vale District Council.
“We have had a lot of issues around language which causes confusion with the device,” says Maryvonne Hassall, the council’s digital strategy manager, about writing a ‘skill’ so people can interact with the authority through Amazon Echo’s Alexa voice-recognition service.
Aylesbury Vale is a small council with big digital ambitions. Internal technical development is outside its scope, but it has brought in external expertise for two significant AI developments. To exploit Alexa, it is working with Arcus Global. And it is working with Digital Genius on how AI could response to queries about services – council tax, benefits and bin collections included.
Connected Knowledge, Aylesbury Vale’s digital strategy document, says AI will be a key area for research to produce proposals on its possible uses in specific, predefined areas.
People are using Alexa at home, to ask questions… we can piggy-back on that and write a council skill that sits on Echo and allows people to engage directly using voice
“It’s a kind of next phase of our digital journey,” Hassall says. “It’s about making our services a lot more customer-centric and to connect our data.”
The strategy acknowledges that, so far, AI has been largely confined to ‘chatbots’. For instance, Enfield Council in London is preparing to launch a chatbot, or ‘cognitive agent’ to interact with citizens.
But Connected Knowledge commits Aylesbury Vale to gradually introducing AI and AI-powered voice control which can automate responses to increasingly complex customer demands, reducing the time council staff spend resolving queries.
Hassall says: “People are using Alexa at home, to ask questions where the answer is available on the internet, such as what’s the deepest sea, the highest mountain, or about the weather. Organisations are writing ‘skills’ for Amazon Echo. For example, the food delivery chain Just Eat has a skill, and people can download that to their Echo device and talk to Alexa about food.
“We thought, ‘why don’t we piggy-back on that and write a council skill that sits on Echo and allows people to engage directly with the council using voice?’. It means is you can download an app, ask Alexa ‘how do I pay my council tax?’ and she will tell you. In fact, we can get Echo to engage with any service we provide.”
The idea is to start with a small list of ‘how do I …’ queries, and when Alexa has answered the question, the dialogue is integrated into the council’s back-office systems. The citizen gets an email confirmation, and their request, such as for an assisted bin collection, will automatically be flagged with the appropriate service for action.
Asking for help
The project started six months ago, and most of that time was taken up with Amazon’s accreditation process, which involved testing and adjusting the ‘skill’ to get it through the company’s rigorous approval scheme. This is where language has been a trial: “We have had to work quite hard at some of the linguistics,” says Hassall.
The good news is that, in late September, Aylesbury Vale soft-launched the Alexa service with staff, although anyone a valid local address could register for the service. If all goes to plan, the council will promote it to the public at the end of October.
Meanwhile, for the past two months Aylesbury Vale has been running a proof-of-concept trial with Digital Genius to understand how AI can help to improve service delivery.
“For example, we are using an assistive agent across our inbound email channel and our webchat, where residents are asking for something, typically information or help,” Hassall says.
“It will read the email and generate a response. Our staff will check whether the reply is correct. If it is not, it will be amended and we can learn from that. We are doing a similar thing with webchat and the finding, to date, is that it is three times faster than previously.”
While there is enthusiasm for the potential of AI to save significant sums of money for public authorities, there are fears about job losses. For instance, think tank Reform predicts that almost 250,000 public sector workers could lose their jobs to robots over the next 15 years.
Hassall (pictured left), however, does not believe that AI will spell redundancies at Aylesbury Vale.
“If anything, we are talking about more people because we are keen to grow new services,” she says.
First, the idea is for staff to provide new non-statutory services which will generate income for the council. Second, if AI deals with standard, straightforward issues, staff will be free to respond more quickly to people who are not connected to the internet, or who have complex and sensitive problems that require human intervention.
Enthusiastic about the ability of AI to analyse huge amounts of data at speed and make recommendations on the back of that, she says: “Managing debt and chasing payment is very negative all round. But if we could monitor a resident’s pattern of payment and understand more about them, we could offer advice. Currently, we don’t engage until the end of the process.”
That, at least, is her dream. For now, her concern is pace.
She says: “I really would like us to be able to do this more quickly. I’m keen to provide a better customer experience, but we have to move forward carefully as well.”